Called to my full

I ’m ceded, I ’ve stopped being theirs;
The name they dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church,
Is finished using now,
And they can put it with my dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools
I ’ve finished threading too.

Baptized before without the choice,
But this time consciously, of grace
Unto supremest name,
Called to my full, the crescent dropped,
Existence’s whole arc filled up
With one small diadem.

My second rank, too small the first,
Crowned, crowing on my father’s breast,
A half unconscious queen;
But this time, adequate, erect,
With will to choose or to reject,
And I choose—just a throne.

~Emily Dickinson
Image by Peter de Vink via Pexels.

I’ve always read this as a love poem–specifically a poem about marriage. I’ve never been a huge fan of most love poems, and Dickinson’s make me uncomfortable sometimes, particularly when they extol the glories of being married, as if marriage is the completion of a woman. But rereading this now, I wonder if it really has to be a love poem. Maybe…the metaphors and language certainly work for marriage. But ultimately, if it is a love poem, it’s a weird one. There’s no mention of the beloved. The only man in the poem, the only other individual other than the speaker, is the father, who perhaps is just a father but maybe stands in here, too, for God himself.

If that’s the case–if the “father” is God–then this becomes a very different poem. The speaker is making a break from the religion and conventions with which she’s been raised. The end of childhood here is no cause for nostalgia, but the embrace of freedom.

In the middle of the poem, I’m intrigued by the reference to the moon–“Called to my full, / The crescent dropped.” She is living into her full potential, her true, unobscured state.

As the poem continues, the speakers uses the language of royalty and power–“rank,” “queen,” “throne”–and we get a sense that this is not so much a poem about love as personal power. Maybe, if it’s a love poem at all, it’s a love poem to herself, to the changes that have empowered her, brought her to where she is.

I think I like it a lot better this way.

Well…

A solemn thing it was, I said,
A woman white to be,
And wear, if God should count me fit,
Her hallowed mystery.

A timid thing to drop a life
Into the purple well,
Too plummetless that it come back
Eternity until.

~Emily Dickinson

“Solemn,” “hallowed,” “mystery”–all words that seem apt in describing marriage. But “timid,” “drop a life,” “plummetless”? Interesting choices. Today’s post goes along with tomorrow’s. In this one, Dickinson uses a well as a metaphor for marriage. In tomorrow’s, her subject is a well itself. What are these two poems saying to each other? See what you think.

Stop now!

APOCALYPSE

I’m wife; I’ve finished that,
That other state;
I’m Czar, I’m woman now:
It’s safer so.


How odd the girl’s life looks
Behind this soft eclipse!
I think that earth seems so
To those in heaven now.


This being comfort, then
That other kind was pain;
But why compare?
I’m wife! stop there!

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna: Pam. We already did this one. SIGH

Wait, no. We did not.

Pam: lol

Brenna: I did the one AFTER it.

Pam: Well, I still have no idea what is happening.

Brenna: Okay. “Apocalypse.” !! That’s not ominous.

Pam: END of the WorLd

Brenna: Who the hell titled this poem??

Pam: That is a wonderful question. If she’s wife, what has she finished?

Brenna: Being a little girl. And it’s weird that she finds being a wife “safer.” RUN, EMILY. IT IS NOT SAFE. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON.

Pam: We know that she was not a wife. Am I meant to assume some other narrator? Is she being obscure for the heck of it? Is she a nun? Is she married to God? What is HAPPENING I seriously do not know.

Brenna: She likes to write as if she’s a wife. From a wife’s perspective.

Pam: Why? Please school me.

Brenna: I guess for the reason any poet writes from any other perspective?Also it could be a God poem. Or a dude poem. Either one. I think she must have liked imagining she was married. Imagining is for sure safer.

Pam: Okay, so: she’s wife now. She’s Czar, so she gets to be in charge, unlike in her unwedded state.

Brenna: I think she’s writing from the perspective of a married woman. She’s left behind childhood, girlhood. Where it gets weird for me is her assertion that being a wife is safer.

Pam: Yes! How is this safer?

Brenna: Wives die in childbirth. It’s not safer, Emily!!

Pam: I was just typing that!! Safer economically, perhaps, assuming the husband is a decent provider?

Brenna: Maybe it’s safer because now she’s in a relationship? Now she’s married and no longer searching. She’s a “heart in port,” safe from the tempestuous passion of “wild nights” and from temptation? And then she reflects on how strange childhood looks from her womanly perspective, and that makes sense to me. It’s surreal to take on an adult role. I wonder how many of us ever really feel fully adult. I remember my mom telling me that when she was married with young children, she used to sometimes look around in a daze and wonder where the grownups were.

Pam: The way she describes the two states is very interesting to me. We have wife, czar, woman, and safer vs. that and that other state.

Brenna: Yes! super interesting and weird. And “czar” is a male role. So by becoming a wife she’s become a man? Because she’s joined with a man?

Pam: And that last rhyming couplet is such a childlike thing to say!

Brenna: It is! It’s like she reverts at the end.

Pam: There’s this image of the grownup married woman saying these ridiculously simple rhymes.

Brenna: And I think that’s telling.

Pam: Yes! It subverts the idea that marriage = adult, grownup, more wise. It’s like the person who tells you how incredibly humble they are.

Brenna: “This being comfort, then/ That other kind was pain”. This is a weird thought. “Because marriage is comfort, then it logically follows that childhood was NOT comfort.” It’s like she’s trying to convince herself with bad logic. So there’s this reversal. The wife doth protest too much. She opens with “It’s so great to be a wife!” but then flip flops at the end. “It MUST be great to be a wife because everybody says so and I’m supposed to want this.”

Pam: Yes! We have to wonder who the audience is, if it’s not just the speaker saying these things to convince herself.

Brenna: “But why compare?/ I’m wife! Stop there!” It’s as if, looking back at childhood from her current reality of marriage, which is supposed to be better, she’s trying to tell us that it’s not better. But as a wife, she’s not allowed to say that. She has to make it sound good, but she has serious reservations. She has to shut herself up so she doesn’t say what she’s really thinking. I wonder…is this Emily trying to convince herself that it’s better to remain single??

Pam: Or, at least, to show us that being a wife doesn’t mean that your problems go away.

Brenna: Hell no they do not go away. You just end up with kids who get the plague and then you are stuck at home cleaning things and cooking soup and going out of your mind. Of course it is possible that my current mental state is coloring my reading of this poem… Maybe the speaker is imagining what it’s like to be a wife. She wonders if she’s missing anything. She thinks at first that she is–comfort, stability, a steady relationship to depend on. But as she thinks about it, she realizes what she’s losing.

Pam: Yes! I think this is why the rhyme scheme switches in the last stanza, too.

Brenna: I love reversals in poems. I geek out about this kind of thing.

Pam: She’s exploring in the first two stanzas, and in the last she’s come to a decision–but it’s not the one she expected. This may be why she reverts to this more childlike rhyme scheme; the first two stanzas are still AABB, but they are very, very loose rhymes. You can’t tell me that anybody, even in the 1800s, actually thought that that/state was anything other than a slant rhyme. But we have perfect rhyme in compare/there. Your current mental state is RELEVANT to this poem.

Brenna: I love how you always bring it back to the rhyme scheme. I forget to do that.

Pam: I can’t help but to check the rhyme scheme first every time.
What do you think? Have we done it justice?

Brenna: I think we have done it all the justice we can possibly do it at this moment. Stop there!

“The fathoms they abide”


 Full fathom five thy father lies; 
              Of his bones are coral made; 
    Those are pearls that were his eyes: 
              Nothing of him that doth fade, 
    But doth suffer a sea-change 
    Into something rich and strange. 
    Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: 
                              Ding-dong. 
    Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.

~William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Emily Dickinson

Today’s poem comes to you courtesy of my great-great-grandmother’s copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Yesterday my mom gave it to me. She had been going through her books, found this one, and thought I might like to have it. I had forgotten to tell her about this project, so it seemed a wonderful, magical coincidence.

The book is old, worn, obviously well-read. Its spine is completely missing. Any dust jacket it once bore is long gone (I wonder if that paper has rotted away into soil, its molecules alchemized into earth, blossoms, bees…)

New and old…

My great-great-grandmother’s name was Lucile Jansen Bower. A generation before her, my great-great-great-grandmother, wife of an authoritarian husband, walked into the Atlantic Ocean one day and did not return. Officially, she drowned. Her story, as it has come to be handed down over a century, ends with, “but she was a very strong swimmer.” The implication is that her death was not accident but escape. I read The Awakening in college, long before I ever heard this family tale, and the first hearing broke me out in cold chills, forever conflating Edna and my ancestor in my imagination.

I wonder what Lucile thought of as she read this poem. Did she hold it up against her own marriage as a woman holds a dress against her body to estimate the fit? Did she think of her mother-in-law and the fathoms she abided?

Emily Dickinson must have thought of Ariel’s song from The Tempest as she wrote these lines. The first stanza begins in rather ordinary fashion–girl becomes woman becomes wife. It all sounds solemn and expected. Then, the turn–in the second stanza, the telling “If.” If her life lacked awe, amplitude, if the gloss wore off–only if–then that lack is as unknown as the ocean’s depths. Why “if”? Why introduce the idea at all if it isn’t so? Dickinson implies that in her marriage, the wife is silent, silenced. This is an interesting poem to include among the sections of love poems in Dickinson’s work. The wife in the first stanza is like a caterpillar become butterfly. In the last stanza, the allusion parallels her with a dead man. Birth, new life, death. The more Dickinson I read, the more I marvel at her ability to make basically anything all about death.

When I stand at the edge of the Atlantic, I think of my great-great-great-grandmother. In an anachronistic imagined memory I see her, standing with her back to a continent. I cannot see her face. She looks out at the infinite expanse, monsters gliding beneath its unquiet surface. She understands that they are free.

If I could somehow stop her, would this change the course of history? In the second this thought takes to lodge in my brain she steps out into the surf, her skirts billowing around her, and strikes out, strong and confident, for the impossible horizon.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring her knell.